Sep 21, 2010

Seeking a safe haven

by Ashley Bollinger


For the past two years Dr. Timothy Brophy and Dr. Norman Reichenbach of Liberty University have been feverishly pursuing what they perceive to be the war between Plethodon Hubrichti and Plethodon Cinereus.

For all non-science speakers, this is the war between the Peaks of Otter Salamander and the Redback Salamander.

The study began back in 2008 when Brophy and Reichenbach hypothesized that the Peaks of Otter salamander’s seclusion was caused by the presence of a competitor. Having found both Redback and Peaks of Otter salamanders inhabiting overlapping sections of the Peaks of Otter Ridgeway, they decided to take their hypothesis further and create a study.

Fast-forward two years and the study is now in full swing.

Accompanied by approximately 12-18 students per trip, Reichenbach said he and Brophy make their way to sectioned off sites on cool damp Saturday mornings. Brisk morning air awakens their senses as they begin to forage for the small amphibians inhabiting each section of land.

The study consists of three different sites along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Each site
has two plots of land that are being studied. The plots are 15 by 15 meters, and marked with flags.

“We, sort of, crawl through the site on our hands and knees turning every rock, every log, every leaf just capturing and identifying salamanders,” Brophy said. 

On the first plot of land at each site they take all the salamanders they find and record their species and size in order to determine salamander densities. 

On the second plot of land the team goes through crawling and scavenging for these same smooth-skinned predators. However, this time when the group finds a Redback they remove them from the site.

This is done to experimentally determine if the two species are competing. 

The goal is to find out if their hypothesis of the Redback’s direct competition with the Peaks of Otter salamander is correct. Both Brophy and Reichenbach believe that this is one the main factors in restricting the Peaks of Otter salamander to a 12 mile radius along the Parkway. If they are right, then the number of Peaks of Otter Salamanders should increase on the plots where Redbacks were removed.

Though the Redback salamander can be found elsewhere in the world, the Peaks of Otter salamander is confined to the Peaks of Otter Area. 

Back in 1990 when Reichenbach, Biology professor and two Liberty biology undergraduates, Pete Kramer and Mike Hayslett, first began to study the Peaks of Otter salamander they had no idea that the study would evolve into multiple studies, having already produced among the many team members six scholarly articles on the salamanders.

Both Reichenbach and Brophy speak of the encouragement and support of Liberty for them and their studies, both in resources and grants.

With two years under their belts, Brophy and Reichenbach estimate that the study will take anywhere from three to five more years before it reaches completion.

Due largely to the fact that the salamanders are often underground, at any given point while counting the team may only be actually counting and or removing 20 percent of the salamanders present. Over time the team will begin to see the effect their removal processes has. At that point they will know who has won the war.


BOLLINGER is a news reporter.

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